A Lifelong Learning and Training Account Act for the USA?

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Learning and training accounts continue to attract attention from policy makers interested in widening participation in adult learning. A wide variety of voucher and credit schemes have now been trialled, from the UK’s Individual Learning Accounts through France’s Compte personnel de formation to Singapore’s SkillsFuture Credit. All have in common the idea of incentivising learners through financial support rather than funding providers (though obviously the two are not mutually exclusive.

Now comes the USA’s turn. Following the Democrats’ success in the mid-term elections, two members of Congress have announced their intention to introduce a Lifelong Learning and Training Account Act. If passed, the law will enable States and public agencies to create systems of employee-owned accounts to help meet the costs of participation in training.

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Mark Warner (Democrat, VA), one of the two member of Congress who sponsored the Act

Eligibility is restricted: those who are entitled to an account must be workers aged 25 to 60, with incomes of up to $82,000. The accounts themselves are to be paid for by a combination of employers and workers together with matched federal funding of up to $1,000; and the sum is to be exempt from taxation. It can be only spent on training costs, not including food or accommodation.

There are also restrictions on the type of training that is eligible. The training must meet certain criteria; the intended outcome must include a recognised post-secondary credential , and the provider must belong to a number of specified categories (including community colleges, industry associations, and labour organisations).

This is a potentially interesting development, and I look forward to seeing how it develops. I don’t know enough about US politics to guage its chances of success, but it chimes with at least one Trump goal, which is to boost the employability and skills of US workers. It is not, though, confined to funding work-related training, and it is focused on the lowest-paid, so it could be quite significant in widening participation in types of learning that workers can choose for themselves.

If it comes off, the Act will add to our understanding of credit and voucher systems in adult learning. So watch this space.

Funding adult learners – the case of Singapore

I’ve posted in the past about financial support for adult learners in Germany and in France. These are both fellow large European countries, and there are some interesting lessons for other similar countries like my own. After a brief Twitter exchange with Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work Institute I thought it might be a good time to look at the case of Singapore, a country with a similar population in terms of size (5.6 million) to Scotland or Yorkshire.

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In 2015 Singapore introduced a virtual voucher system, known as SkillsFuture Credit, which forms part of a wider national SkillsFuture strategy for lifelong learning. Open to all national citizens aged over 25, SkillsFuture Credit involves an initial government injection into your account of S$500, followed by periodic top-ups over time.

SkillsFuture Credit pays for courses provided by a range of eligible, largely publicly-funded institutions, including the arts, sports and so-called ‘lifestyle’ courses offered through the state-sponsored People’s Association, and the courses for seniors offered through the National Silver Academy network.

Initially channeled to the citizen to pay fees, from 19 May 2017 SkillsFuture Credit has been disbursed to training providers, with the exception of course fees for overseas MOOCs. This follows a decision to take enforcement action against 4,400 individuals who have reportedly submitted false claims.

Otherwise the system seems to be working well. More than 126,000 Singaporeans used their SkillsFuture credit by the end of the scheme’s inaugural year in 2016. The most popular area for using the credit was information technology, including a large number of older adults who were learning basic IT, often for the first time; second most popular was foreign languages. Some 6% of claims were in respect of MOOCs.

It is probably too early to make any confident claims about Singapore’s system as a model for other countries. The administrative procedures have been revised several times, and taken with the allegations of fake claims this suggests that there have been teething problems. And some will find the range of eligible courses too restricted, with its strong – but far from inclusive – emphasis on skills for innovation.

Yet the scale of take-up is impressively large for a relatively small state, and the financial commitment is admirable. So at the very least, Singapore confirms what can be done by a government determined to promote a culture of lifelong learning.